Film Critic Alex Green is semi-impressed by the attention-seeking Beautiful Boy, starring Steve Carrell, and Timothée Chalamet
Awards season is in full swing, and with it comes numerous films looking to grab an Oscar here, a Golden Globe there. Director, Felix van Groeningen has been in this hunt with his 7th directorial effort, Beautiful Boy. With Steve Carell rejuvenating his career with numerous dramatic performances, such as his turn as John du Pont in Foxcatcher. Timothée Chalamet joins him as one of the fastest rising stars in Hollywood right now, after his critically acclaimed performance in Call Me by Your Name, this pairing could make a film that dazzles as we begin 2019. Based on the memoirs of David and Nic Sheff, Carell plays David, a father and writer whose life is thrown into chaos when trying to guide his teenage son Nic, played by Chalamet, through a large drug addiction which is threatening his chances at a good life, if even a life at all. Not the most fun start to 2019 for audiences.
On the surface, this film seems like a sure-fire winner. Elements of the film really do stand out and work superbly, and the film’s crowning achievement is the performances by Carell and Chalamet. Their performances are perfect contrasts of each other, with Carell a more subdued, internal figure of ruin together with Chalamet, who plays Nic with an extremely external vulnerability. It’s hard to judge who is better, because these performances are designed to be different, to compliment each other, and they both achieve this superbly.
Carell feels totally sympathetic as David, a father who feels desperate and scared, and at times ruined, by his son’s addiction as much as Nic himself. His latter frustrations and anger later in the film are totally believable and heart-breaking, as a man who feels the son he knew slipping away, even outwardly asking “Who are you, Nic?”.
Meanwhile Chalamet is on top form here, putting in a very vulnerable and convincing performance as Nic, a character almost cursed by addiction, and he shows great range as he fluctuates from a confident teenager to a self-loathing mess. And it’s through Nic that Beautiful Boy explores addiction in a fantastically done way. Chalamet plays Nic as someone who can’t really escape his demons, even in scenes when he seems brighter and happy with who he is, he almost inevitably falls again. Here, drugs and addiction are the antagonist, and is depicted not as a small issue, but a disease, plaguing Nic throughout and never refusing to leave him. It’s a tragic and very scary look at addiction as it not only eats away at Nic, but David as well. Fair to say, the screenplay is well done here, and Chalamet’s award recognition is deserved. It is in these thematic constructs surrounding Carell and Chalamet that do give the film a level of depth and complexity. This should really be great.
It’s just a shame that for all of this, so much seems to get in the way and at times feels cheesy. The direction here by van Groenigen is solid, if unspectacular. Not all these problems can be laid at his feet, but various problems creep up, from some very strange editing choices that blend past and present events together in a very unsubtle way, to a completely obnoxious soundtrack that detracts from any emotion or power that scenes are trying to create. Even some poorly portrayed supporting characters that feel like they are just there for window dressing and not to provide anything of note to the film, and all these combine to create one huge problem throughout: Beautiful Boy lacks subtlety. This is exactly the kind of film that craves subtlety, that wants to deliver a lot from little.
Yet these decisions all draw attention to themselves, almost spelling out to the audience the exact emotions they are supposed to feel. That isn’t film making, that’s spoon-feeding. It’s a shame because it feels like these problems prevent Beautiful Boy from reaching the greatness it’s trying to achieve, and its central stars deserve. It lacks the restraint to allow scenes to speak for themselves, and too often the subtlety of Carell and the breakdowns of Chalamet are undercut by a mainstream guitar and tenor singers belting out some sort of ballad.
This is the perfect example of a film with awards on its mind. And whilst the intentions are extremely good, the craftsmanship is lacking. At least Chalamet got a nomination, he is one of the bright spots which deserves recognition. It feels so frustrating to watch a film like this, where the greatness is there, only to be spoiled by a few poor decisions along the film making process.
A frustrating film that gets in its own way. Carell and Chalamet are both terrific, the screenplay is good and the discussion on addiction is important. It’s just a shame it’s so unsubtle, so cheesy, and so strangely put together. Good, but disappointing.